Some applause for Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra for stating the obvious.
The University of Connecticut's medical school, and its health center, should be in Hartford.
So if there's going to be a new University of Connecticut health center, let's please not repeat the mistake of 35 years ago when backroom wheeling and dealing brought the facility to Farmington. An expanded UConn Health Center and research facility should be in Hartford, where it can attract and spawn more development and promote collaboration with the private sector.
I understand that Segarra might be dreaming. UConn is entrenched at the sprawling Farmington campus, which officials tell me works exceedingly well for the medical school and research facilities there. But I'm looking toward the future, and a $400 million or more investment in a suburban location away from mass transit, workforce and housing just repeats the mistakes of the past.
What does work is an urban location next to where the action is. If you want to see what bioscience research and medicine can do, look to Boston or Pittsburgh, where hospitals and bioscience research play a vital role. In New Haven, collaboration between the city, Yale-New Haven Hospital and Yale Medical School has brought jobs, businesses and housing to the city.
The UConn project is an essential component for rebuilding our local economy, with the potential to add thousands of jobs and attract new companies to Hartford. The existing UConn health center plan calls for renovating the outdated John Dempsey Hospital in Farmington at a cost of $362 million. But its future is uncertain because the state recently lost out on a $100 million federal grant for the project.
Segarra correctly sees that Hartford's — and the region's — smart-growth future must be focused on the city and not the suburbs.
"From a geographic point of view, it just makes sense,'' Segarra told me, pointing out that Hartford will increasingly be a transportation hub in coming years, especially if the state's plans for a high-speed and commuter rail line are successful. "Hartford is a zone of convergence. You have the buildings, you have the infrastructure and you have the space you need."
There are complicated and expensive questions here, such as what to do with the old hospital, how many new beds might be needed in the city and just what would be needed in Hartford to house UConn's medical and dental schools. There's also a long history of sharp disagreement surrounding this project among hospitals in the area.
But the larger point is that any expanded UConn facility must be in Hartford if we want to get the added economic punch. Keeping it in Farmington will not spark an economic revival.
"It doesn't make sense to have the medical school in Farmington. It makes entirely good sense to put it in the [city's] central core … where transit is available and where an available workforce exists,'' said New Haven Mayor John DeStefano, whose city is increasingly becoming a model for the state.
"One of my big partners is the dean of the [Yale] medical school. That medical school generates thousands of jobs in New Haven,'' DeStefano said. "Our office vacancies are at the lowest levels in 20 or 30 years. We are about to build a new and taxable office lab downtown. What is driving our occupancies are the knowledge-based companies, particularly life and bioscience companies, based on the science of the medical school."
"We see the medical school as a job creator in the commercial sector. We encourage and support its growth."
Last week, Segarra told the region's business leaders at the MetroHartford Alliance that he plans to lobby for bringing UConn's medical school and health center to Hartford.
"That medical school is a huge asset for us,'' said Oz Griebel, the alliance's CEO and a gubernatorial candidate last year. "Why Hartford? There is no rail line out in Farmington. There is no busway. What better way to start creating critical mass. Look at the power we already have downtown now with Aetna, Hartford and The Travelers. We've already got two major hospitals in the city."
With years of conflict over what to do about the UConn hospital, Segarra will have a tough time convincing state legislators, executives from area hospitals and the university that Farmington isn't the best location. A $3 billion deficit might make Gov. Dannel T. Malloy gun shy of yet another investment in UConn.
But the mayor-turned-governor knows the impact this project could make in Hartford — and for his administration. Not long ago, he told me he sees an "even bigger upside" to an expanded UConn research hospital.
That upside begins with moving it to Hartford.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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